Civil Engineering: Overview

Overview

What is Civil Engineering?

Civil Engineering is "the branch of engineering that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of works of public utility, esp. those relating to social infrastructure" (Oxford English Dictionary, no date).   As such, it covers a very wide range of engineering situations, from building roads through to constructing airports and energy plants.  All of the UK's infrastructure will have been designed and built by Civil Engineers.

Early humans had to build shelters and work out how to get around rivers, etc., making civil engineering one of earliest engineering disciplines.   thecivilengg.com states that the term "Civil Engineer" was coined in the 18th century (no date) and was used to describe non-military engineering works.

 There are many branches within civil engineering, and civil engineers may chose to specialise in one of them.

Transport infrastructure

As humans have spread across the globe, so the need for ways of travelling to different places has expanded, from the early days of roads through to the modern use of aircraft.  Cars needs roads, trains need railways, and aircraft need airports, ships need ports - without them, they can not be used to their full potential. 

Roads come in various shapes and sizes - from small country roads to the vast motorway networks.  They have to deal with vast quantities of traffic and freight on a daily basis as well as cope with the weather.  The ground they are built on is also important, as is climate change.  With more wet weather comes the threat of sink holes as rock is eroded away and no longer able to support the soil layers above (National Geographic, no date).  Roads themselves also erode over time giving rise to potholes and cracks and maintenance is an ongoing concern.

In addition many other utilities use roads as a means of access - for example, water, gas, electricity, and communications all have pipes or cables underneath roads. If you have ever seen a new housing estate being built, you'll see the road infrastructure is outlined and built first - to allow all of the utilities to be put in place underground, before the actual housing is built.

Railways require careful planning of routes according to what kind of rolling stock will be using it.  For example - designing a route for passenger trains will have different considerations to those that are for the movement of goods.  Passenger trains tend to be shorter (in terms of number of carriages), and travel at potentially higher speeds.  Goods train tend to be considerably longer, and thus are heavier, and travel slower, so  avoiding inclines which would require more energy to navigate (as thus more fuel) are best avoided. 

Airports and shipping ports give us access to the globe not just our immediate "patch of land". They have had to adapt to larger and larger aircraft/boats and the increased traffic that comes with them. Siting new airports or shipping ports can be problematic because finding a big enough space near population centres is becoming increasingly difficult.  In addition, both need supporting infrastructure to help process (loading and off-loading) of freight and passengers, and strong onward transportation links. 

Energy infrastructure

An image of the T-pylon designMany of us take for granted the fact electricity is available at the flick of a switch, but in order to get it there it's civil engineers who build the power plants and the network of cables and sub-stations to get it to your home.  The National grid invests around £1.3 billion every year to maintain the network.  In 2011 Bystrup, a Danish firm, won a competition to re-design the pylons used to hold the cables carrying electricity.  The new "T-design" was first installed in Somerset and will carry electricity from the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant to six million homes and businesses (Blake, 2021).

With climate change concerns the need to find less polluting way of generating electricity is an increasing area of research.  Renewable sources such as solar, wind, and wave generation are becoming more popular.  Solar especially is becoming more affordable, and is becoming a standard option to new build housing around the UK.

Nuclear power generation is not without risks, and the waste from such power plants is extremely hazardous.  Safeguards are paramount to avoid meltdowns or accidents like the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters.  Nuclear power plants take a long time to build and so have to be planned well in advance of their need.  Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant is currently under construction in Somerset and aims to generate 3,260MW of electricity for it's 60-year life span (EDF Energy, no date).

Water infrastructure

In 1858 London experience "The Great Stink" due to the amount of human and industrial waste that was pouring into the river Thames.  The summer was a hot one and the smell increased to unbearable levels, as the Thames started to ferment.  In addition the number of water-borne disease cases was increasing.  To address the issue a huge engineering project was approved by parliament and a new network of sewers was built using 318 million bricks to remove the waste from London to further down the Thames.  While the project was deemed a success in terms of smell and water-borne disease reduction - it merely moved the problem downstream! (Historic England, no date).

Like electricity, we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to have instant running water from a tap, or sanitary systems to flush away our waste.  Managing a water supply for even a small village is reliant on civil engineering, from sourcing new water to "cleaning" dirty water so it can be used again.  Sewage works and pumping stations work tirelessly to ensure you have a clean water supply to your home.  A vast network of pipes and sewers snake around in a hidden world underground - and all thanks to Civil Engineers.

Compromises

As with most engineering projects - transportation engineering has compromises.  Imagine you are building a new railway, but there is a rather large hill in the way of your route.  Building around the hill means using more materials, and may even reduce the speed of trains as they navigate the curve.  Do you change your route, or build a tunnel?  Tunnelling is expensive and requires considerable planning, but alternative routes may take you too close to housing, which would cause issues to local residents.

Large civil engineering projects can also be controversial and politically charged.  Building a new nuclear power plant is not just a huge construction project - it can take years of negotiation between politicians, energy companies and nearby population centres to agree a site for construction.

Cost is also an issue. Even with the best planning, until you actually start a build and digging the ground, you may well encounter delays due to archaeological remains you weren't expecting, or the bedrock you want to use is lower down than first thought. Surveying the land thoroughly before starting can mitigate against some of this.

Standards and regulations

Whether the construction project is small or large, there are many regulations to be aware of from Planning regulations to Environmental, and safe ways or working.  

Standards are heavily used in the construction industry.  They ensure all the different groups of engineers are working in the same agreed way to ensure that the finished project works as expected.  Imagine if you are building a railway without agreeing the standards to use - you could end up laying down tracks that are the wrong gauge for the rolling stock that will use them!

Into the future

The future of civil engineering is a bright one.  The technology is advancing allowing for more innovative structures to be built.  We are no longer constrained by specific shapes as 3D printed housing is now available.  Concrete can now be "printed" into curves easily allowing for far more intricate designs.

Sustainable and environmentally considerate construction is also an evolving area of interest.  Constructing buildings and infrastructure using new less polluting methods, and using new sustainable materials.  Recent developments using specially treated wood to create a "super wood" could change the way we choose our building materials and reduce the environmental impact of building (Goudarzi, 2022; Perkins 2018).

References

Blake, H. (2021) National Grid builds world's first T-pylon in Somerset. Available at: https://www.nationalgrid.com/national-grid-build-worlds-first-t-pylon-somerset. (Accessed: 10 January 2023)

EDF Energy (no date) About Hinkley Point C. Available at: https://www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/hinkley-point-c/about. (Accessed 10 January 2023)

Goudarzi, S. (2022) Knock on Super Wood. Available at: https://www.asme.org/topics-resources/content/knock-on-super-wood. (Accessed 10 January 2023)

Historic England (no date) The Great Stink - How the Victorians transformed London to solve the problem of waste. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/archive/collections/photographs/the-great-stink/#b2e6b923. (Accessed: 10 January 2023)

National Geographic (no date) Sinkholes. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/sinkhole. (Accessed: 10 January 2023)

Oxford English Dictionary (no date) Civil, C2 Compounds of the adjective. Available at: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/33575?redirectedFrom=civil+engineering#eid137939871 (Accessed: 9 January 2023)

Perkins, S. (2018) Stronger than steel, able to stop a speeding bullet - it's super wood!. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stronger-than-steel-able-to-stop-a-speeding-bullet-mdash-it-rsquo-s-super-wood/ (Accessed: 10 January 2023)

thecivilengg.com (no date) History of civil engineering. Available at: http://www.thecivilengg.com/History.php (Accessed: 9 January 2023)

Picture credits

Interstate 10 and interstate 17 interchange at Night (3) by Alan Stark is used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

Bystrup - the T-pylon by PlanningResource PlanningResource is used under CC BY 2.0 licence

Lines and circles by Ivan Bandura is used under Unspash licence

Professional bodies

Professional institutions are bodies that work to help their members develop their careers by offers training and publications to keep their skills up-to-date.  They also offer networking opportunities.

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